The best $200 I’ve ever spent on gadgets? Here’s a hint: 35mm f1.8

By on March 3, 2012
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A lens may be a better investment than a new camera.

It was just about the best $200 I’ve ever spent on a piece of technology. A few years ago I bought a 35mm f1.8 lens for use with my Nikon D90, and I’ve got a lot of use out of that lens. In fact, it’s the lens I use for probably 90% or more of all my photography now. For most of the remaining 10%, I use a 50mm f1.8.

When I bought the D90 it was brand new, I could shoot HD video with it, and it was all the rage. But now, if you look at specifications and functionality, it’s really showing its age. Sure, 12.3 megapixels is more than enough detail to capture most anything I want to shoot, but it’s fallen behind in many ways. That said, it’s a camera I now know all the ins and outs of: I know how to set almost anything and everything with the knobs, dials, switches, and the LCD display. And that’s of great benefit to me and probably means that I can take better photos just because I know the camera, rather than having more megapixels or better functionality.

The D90 has a 1.5x conversion factor, which means that a 35mm lens in effect turns into a 52.5 mm lens. My 50mm lens is in effect a 80mm lens, so short telephoto. This is because the sensor that captures the light in the D90 is smaller than the 24×36 mm negative size in 35 mm film.

Nikon 35mm f1.8

But what matters more is how fast the lens is, the f1.8. That’s called the aperture or f-stop and the lower the number the more light the lens can let in. Shooting at a low f-stop also means shallower depth of field. A shallow depth of field means that less is sharp in front of and to the back of what’s in focus. With a small f-stop number like f1.8 only one or a few millimeters might be in focus, with a large number like f22 almost everything in the shot can be in focus at the same time.

That’s what I like about this lens that I can play with a shallow depth of field. It’s almost like there’s a third dimension to my photos, which adds to everything else that comes into play, like color, texture, movement, composition, etc. And for $200, it’s been the best thing I could have done for my photographic experience, and I hope also, my photographic skills.

As you progress with your photographic skills and especially as you play with shallow depth of field, bokeh is something you will come across. It’s a fancy say of talking about how the out of focus background looks like. For example, how the circles form, how colors separate and blend together, and how light and dark areas appear. Now I should add that there’s also quite a bit of snobbery in the world of photography, especially when it comes to bokeh, with many claims that you need to spend thousands on a lens to get the right bokeh. To me it’s a matter of personal taste, for which it is hard to find an absolute truth.

So when you’re thinking about buying a new DSLR next time, consider putting that money on a new lens instead. Chances are you can get away with a lot less money and that it’ll make much more of a positive impact on your photography. And if you can also find out what your favorite bokeh looks like, that’s a nice bonus.


I write and talk too much about tech. You can find my personal blog at, my radio shows at, and me on Twitter as mnystedt.

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